San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre stages Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning Best Play of 2009 God Of Carnage with three graduates of its prestigious MFA program (and a fourth Old Globe favorite) and comes up with a production that easily rivals those which have starred far bigger names.

 As its title might suggest, Reza’s hilariously edgy comedy examines the carnage even the most sophisticated and socially domesticated among us can wreak when manners are forgotten and the gloves come off—helped along by copious amounts of rum.

The play’s four civilized savages are Alan and Annette Raleigh (T. Ryder Smith and Caitlin Muelder) and Michael and Veronica Novak (Lucas Caleb Rooney and Erika Rolfsrud), the former of whom have come to pay the Novaks a visit, though one would hardly term it a social call. It seems that the Raleighs’ eleven-year-old son Benjamin has struck the Novaks’ Henry in the face, resulting in “a swelling of the upper lip, the breaking of two incisors, including injury to the right incisor.”

The above comes from the statement Michael and Veronica have prepared and now want Alan and Annette to sign, the aggrieved parents’ attempt at some sort of closure to the playground incident.

Though writer/book shop employee Veronica seems at first to be the most levelheaded and businesslike of the bunch, she’s also the one least likely to accept a signed statement as sufficient recompense for what she considers Benjamin’s unprovoked attack on her innocent child.

Mousy wealth manager Annette seems initially entirely too cowed by her husband and timid among strangers to do anything other than get sick to her stomach. We soon learn, however, that still waters run deep once Annette has had a few glasses of rum and been forced to listen to a few too many of Alan’s incessant cell phone calls.

 Corporate lawyer Alan seems entirely unconcerned with his son’s misbehavior, viewing him as the savage he is, and seeing any attempt to change him as a waste of time that could be far better spent on the phone conducting lawyer business, place or circumstances be damned—and woe to anyone who overhears these “private conversations.”

Meanwhile domestic hardware dealer Michael takes a boys-will-be-boys attitude to the incident, confessing that he himself once led his own elementary school gang just as the Raleigh’s son does today, a revelation which doesn’t sit well with Veronica at all.

After about ten or fifteen minutes of small talk, haggling, and splitting hairs over words—Was Benjamin “armed” with a stick, or simply “furnished?” Is Henry’s lip “disfigured,” or only temporarily “swollen?”—and nothing particularly resolved, the Raleighs prepare to depart, a meeting between their son and the Novaks’ to take place at some as yet unspecified time in the near future.

 Obviously Alan and Annette stick around, or there would be no God Of Carnage, and one of the play’s many pleasures is observing Reza’s expertise at finding ways to keep the Raleighs chez the Novaks for another hour or so, during which time married audience members will likely find at least one character whose attitudes and actions hit (perhaps too) close to home.

First and foremost, however, God Of Carnage is a comedy, albeit a dark one, and Reza mines laughs and gasps aplenty from a discarded hamster, some not-quite-ruined coffee table books, a grandmother’s blood pressure medication, and a pair of cigars about to be smoked in the home of an asthmatic child—not to mention an onstage brawl or two.

Reza not only gets us to laughing, she also gets us to thinking about male-female, male-male, and female-female relationships, as each one of her cast of four finds him-or-herself at some time or another allied with one or the other of the remaining three, whether attacking a spouse or defending his-or-her gender—or vice versa.

Up till now, a good deal of God Of Carnage’s popular success has come from star power—Isabelle Huppert in Paris, Ralph Fiennes in London, and Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden in New York and L.A.

Muelder (Old Globe/University Of San Diego Graduate Theatre Program Class Of 1999), Rolfsrud (Class of ’96), Rooney (Class of ’02), and Smith (winner of the Craig Noel Award for his Old Globe performance in Lincolnesque) may not be household names, but no matter. Their work here is superb.

Under the brilliant direction of Richard Seer (Director of the Old Globe/University Of San Diego Graduate Theatre Program since 1993), these four gifted actors deliberately underplay their roles early on, the better to surprise us once the masks of civility have fallen. Muelder’s soft-spoken Annette, Rolfsrud’s all-business Veronica, Rooney’s self-controlled Michael, and Smith’s soft-spoken Alan lull us into thinking that Reza’s play just might be a polite comedy of manners and mores.

It isn’t, and much of the fun and excitement of the Old Globe production is in discovering just how wrong our initial impressions of the foursome have been.

Adding to the impact and intimacy of Seer’s staging is its venue, the 250-seat Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, with no one sitting further back than five rows from the theater’s arena stage. No nosebleed seats here, affording audience members fly-on-the-wall vantage points no matter where seated.

 Scenic designer Robert Morgan replicates the tasteful elegance of the Novaks’ upscale Brooklyn residence, a bowl of red tulips prominent on the glass centerstage coffee table. Morgan’s costumes are the careful choices of four adults hoping to make the best impression on strangers, and one of director Seer’s inspired choices is to have each character remove at least one article of clothing as the evening progresses—Annette and Alan their suit jackets and Michael and Veronica their sweaters—as the foursome begin to fight “sans gloves.”

 Paul Peterson’s sound design features some mood-setting music and is sprinkled liberally with Alan’s vibrating phone rings, proving that setting a phone to vibrate makes it no less obnoxious when someone calls. Chris Rynne’s lighting design is subtle when subtlety is needed, and starkly dramatic in the play’s final fadeout, which Rynne’s lighting and Peterson’s sound render considerably more satisfying than on paper or in a previously reviewed production.

Not surprisingly, God Of Carnage requires a fight director, a role which George Yé fills quite niftily. Hannah Ryan is assistant director, Sean Fanning assistant scenic designer, and Michelle Hunt Souza assistant costume design. Annette Yé is stage manager and Sarah Kolman production assistant.

With its small cast, simple set, and ninety-minute, intermission-free running time, Reza’s God Of Carnage is likely to follow in the footsteps of her much-produced Art and become an intimate theater favorite. The Old Globe provides a textbook example of just how fine a production can ensue when God Of Carnage is done just right.

Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
August 12, 2012
Photos: Henry DiRocco

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